Castlerock, Northern Ireland, The 1990s

Jonny Blair visited Castlerock in Northern Ireland

Caravan site in Castlerock Northern Ireland

I spent manys a day in Castlerock during the 1990s. Castlerock is an excellent little seaside town on Northern Ireland’s north coast. A number of reasons influenced the fact that I spent Summer and Easter days there. One was with my old school, Bangor Grammar who made a habit of holding summer camp at Guysmere (a park right by the beach), another reason was the Milk Cup (the world’s largest youth football tournament I’ll have you know) and another was that my uncle John McCullough, my aunt Anne McCullough and their good mate Norman owned caravans there. One of my best mates consistently through the 1990s was cousin Gary. Gary and I shared in equal quantities a passion for football, randomness, music and alcohol, with women playing the formative part of the previous four. Here, in some type of chronological order are my memories from beautiful little Castlerock. I regret that no photos of Gary and I exist from those days spent in Castlerock – the pre internet era – we probably got some photos but opened the film and exposed them or something. However, I have my memories and my God they were good. As a twilight sun shone its shocking Britishness over a balaclava influenced 1990s Northern Ireland, I used a football to escape my mind from politics, and so…

1991 – As far as I remember this was my first trip to Castlerock. I was 11 and was there with the school (Bangor Grammar School). I remember getting a train up from Bangor station and camping out properly, putting our own tents up and cooking for ourselves a lot of the time. This is something I couldn’t even do now! I met Simon Boyd, Philip Anderson, Ryan Kerr, Chris Rowan, Michael ‘Snowball’ Robinson, Michael ‘Whitty’ Whitford and many others there. We played football and cricket on the beach and also the treasure hunts were good craic. To me those were summer holidays. I wore a Glentoran shirt. I don’t have any photos or videos to show for this happy time. Trust me it was good, even if it lacked females in a British Wannabe Protestant Conservative Boys Grammar School.

1993 – I think two years elapsed before I hit Castlerock again. This time it was the day of the ladies Wimbledon Final, where Jana Novotna was 4-1 up in the second set (and had won the first set) against Stefi Graf. Somehow Graf pulled it back and won. I remember watching that with Gary in a small TV in their caravan at the caravan site in Castlerock. We had great barbecues there, while my Dad, John and Norman would drink beers to a kind Northern Irish sun. I think this was the day that Gary and I played a match against former Crusaders (and Lincoln City) goalkeeper Jason Hamer, whom we bate just by the football pitch at Castlerock.

1994 – This was my first Milk Cup watching with Gary. We would play matches by the side of the pitches. We met Roy Carroll this time (a future Norn Iron international), he was doing nets for Fermanagh district and I think we saw him save a penalty. He would go on to play for Northern Ireland, Rangers, Man United, Hull, Wigan, Derby and West Ham. We watched loads of matches that year, mainly at Castlerock playing fields, but also at Portstewart and Portrush and also the final at Coleraine. I think this is the one where Hearts won the whole tournament and in the final a goal was scored by Derek Homes. Fast forward ten years and I’d be watching Derek every week for the Cherries, AFC Bournemouth in another beach location. We must have seriously watched about 30 matches of the Milk Cup (which had hunderds of matches, with 3 different age groups, and many locations) and played many a spectator by the touchline. Big stars have gone on to great things following the Milk Cup, the most obvious ones are Nicky Barmby, David Healy, David Beckham and Joe Cole.

I also remember watching the classic World Cup Quarter Final between Brazil and Holland in there on a wee TV in Gary’s caravan. Brazil stormed intill a 2 nil lead, but somehow the Dutch had pulled it back to 2-2 and it was anyone’s game. A Branco free kick from 30 yards gave the Brazilians a 3-2 win, with Romario and Bebeto scoring the other two. We were out playing football most of the nights.

1995 – Again it was Milk Cup fever in late July and Gary and I as keen Tottenham Hotspur fans (believe it or not, this was my team of choice for much of the 1990s… due to my Dad, I was not yet an AFC Bournemouth diehard) watched the Spurs matches, only to see them always lose out to local youth teams, who were in essence much better. I’m not sure why we didn’t just support the local teams! 1995 may well have been the first year I drank more than 1 tin of beer on a night in Castlerock. With John and my Dad often down the pub, they would buy me a ‘half a shandy’ or more likely a ‘coke’! so Gary and I would look for the Tennents in the fridge and just sit in the Caravan chilling the fuck out. I don’t remember my brothers and sisters (Marko, Cathy, Danny) or my cousins (Alison, Michael), being there as much. It was normally just me and Gary, the football and the lager.

1996 – It was in Gary’s caravan in 1996 that I first heard Champagne Supernova by Oasis. To this day, it rings through as an awesome tune. I love it. I had got into Oasis the previous year, and had started building up my record collection. I was still only 15 (this was Easter) and we would listen to Oasis in the caravan. We also watched the Milk Cup in 1996, but I think I missed the final, just catching about 4 group games as I spent a few days away. Looking back, these days in Castlerock over the previous 5 years, spent away from my parents were the longest I’d ever been away from them. I needed that and it was great having a beach just there, people to play football with, some shit radio and the odd tin of Tennents. Life would change forever once alcohol was legal for me in 1998. It just wouldn’t be the same and it still isn’t.

1997 – There were quite a few Castlerock trips in 1997, including the very first time I drank in a bar on my own (I had done in 1996 at Michael’s wedding). I looked ridiculously young and sometimes Gary and I would go into the Snooker Club by the train station or The Golf Hotel’s wee bar, which was great. I think that’s where I first got served. Gary was 3 years younger though and we both looked young, so we’d either sit in the corner or sit with John, Gary’s Dad. Actually let’s narrow 1997 down into 3 parts:

February 1997 – Robbie Williams hit the charts with Old Before I Die, I quit school and didn’t know what the fuck I wanted, and sadly sadly, my Aunty Anne (Gary’s Mum, John’s wife and my Dad’s sister) lost her long battle with cancer. It was very sad and to try and get Gary and John away from it all, we spent a long weekend in Castlerock. It was the weekend we had first heard of Tiger Woods – as a youngster he won his first major that weekend – we believe he kicked ass in The US Masters. John and my Dad wouldn’t have cared if Gary and I had got ridiculously drunk. Gary needed an escape from it all: life, sadness, sorrow. I remember we went into another wee bar near the beach, CANNOT remember the name, but Gary and I did have a few pints, but not much. The details are a bit hazy. We definitely got a carryout and returned home from the hotel before my Dad and John because we wanted a few beers with Liam Gallagher, Robbie Williams and Blur’s Song 2 being the things to listen to at the time. I hope it helped Gary and John. I’ll never know how they felt at that time. I enjoyed being in Castlerock away from the monotony of Bangor and Belfast. I think I was “working” for the BBC and Belfast Telegraph on work experience, before my first self-employed job of Northern Ireland fanzine editor of Here We Go…Again was launched later that month.

April – June 1997 – I stayed a few times during this period. We’d more than often watch TV and drink Tennent’s Lager (Gary and I both later moved on to Harp), getting smashed, even playing guitar, writing songs and listening to Oasis. I’m pretty sure this was the time when I got into the Manic Street Preachers big time. I’ve some lyrics somewhere that Gary and I wrote, 11 years ago, they’ll probably mean something now. I’ll dig them out. We used to write loads of songs on Tennent’s and Harp in Castlerock.

July 1997 – I spent a week there during the Milk Cup, and the memories will long forever linger. We spent time in The Golf Hotel, The Snooker Club, The Beach, by the Football Pitch (watching my mate Warren ‘Pastie’ Smyth as it happened, as County Down beat Northern Ireland 5-3. Thats a contradiction isn’t it? Why did Northern Ireland not just field the County Down team?), but also in Coleraine, Portrush, Limavady and Portstewart. At one of the matches we had heard that a Canadian ‘soccer’ team Glen Shields Huskies had lost 12-0. Next they were due to play Spurs, so we turned up expecting an easy match and loads of goals. This was in Portrush, where we also watched another match that day. In the end Tottenham won about 11-0!!! The Glen Shields Huskies team were unbelievably shite and to this day its the biggest rout I’ve ever seen at a live match (second up is Bournemouth’s 8-0 killing of Birmingham in 2014, or our 6-0 destruction of Wrexham in 2004). It is worth checking the record books for that Glen Shields Huskies match, but I’m sure it was 11-0. Gary and I used to keep (and graffiti) our Milk Cup programme every year and we filled in most of the scores, so we will have to check it out. At the same time Gary and I were caught up in an Oasis hit Britain. The masterpiece of Be Here Now was about to be unleashed onto the world, and we would listen incessantly to ‘D’You Know What I Mean?’, ‘Stay Young’, ‘Angels Child’ [sic] and ‘Heroes’ the latest 4 track EP from Oasis. As Oasis would decline from then on, our days in Castlerock slowly but surely came to an end. I did go back with Gary in 1998 for the Milk Cup and it was my last trip there. MY how the world changes…

I write this in 2008, ten years since I was last in Castlerock. A place that gave me many a happy memory in my teens. On a negative side I seem to remember a big shooting there on a building site in 1993. I think it was the UFF and Torrens Knight that did it, but in those days you would barely flinch an eyelid. The Shankill Fish Shop Bomb, Greysteel Trick or Treat, they all passed me by and are all now condemned to history. Castlerock just got caught in the troubles in the same way that everywhere in Northern Ireland did. It ain’t a bad thing, it’s just a part of history. I’ll really have to return there someday and relive the memories and have a few chilled beers in the Golf Hotel. Actually maybe I’ll get Gary and all and get a carryout and just sit by the beach talking shite. At the end of the day, that’s what life is all about…

For the meantime I’m a travelling Northern Irishman – living a lifestyle of travel!! Check out my travel timeline!

Don’t Stop Living!

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